"Toshka" Irrigation Project
How Egypt Plans to Make the Desert Bloom

With its ambitious "Toshka" project, Egypt's government intends to tame the desert and make it fertile using water from the Nile – but at what price? Hassan Znined reports

The Nile (photo: AP)
The Nile, source of life for ten countries in Africa. Egypt is particulary dependent on the stream.

​​Uncontrolled population growth combined with limited water reserves is an explosive mixture in those regions of the earth that suffer under the effects of desertification. Egypt is one such region. However, it has the good fortune to be traversed by one of the world's longest rivers, the Nile.

Due to meteoric demographic growth, the fertile land that makes up only five percent of Egypt's territory is receding at an alarming pace. The more pessimistic estimates claim that 1,000 square meters of farmland in the Nile Delta and Nile Valley are being built over every hour – an enormous challenge if the Egyptian government intends to compensate for this by winning new farmland.

Nightmarish traffic in Cairo

The desert has been a geographic reality in Egypt for millennia. But the explosion in the country's population means that residential and settlement space is now in short supply. Cities and towns spread outward without constraints, destroying the already scant arable land. In Cairo alone, a city many compare to an overturned ashtray, there reside an estimated 16 million people – with the daytime commuters, this number shoots up to over 20 million.

The roads are perpetually clogged with bumper-to-bumper cars. Traffic is an everyday nightmare here. And the metropolis is still growing non-stop, just like the other metropolitan areas in the Nile Valley and the Delta.

Masses of people throng the exhaust-choked sidewalks, pushing onward between soot-covered high-rises. One wonders how they can bear this incredible noise level, the extreme air pollution and the oppressive crowds.

Green spaces receding

The city is expanding outward without letup, encroaching ever further into the fertile land around it. Sixty-seven-year-old Imam Ali, father of five children, can attest to how things have changed in his own lifetime: "At the beginning of my career I was a farmer, but when I saw how all the arable land was being built up, I got a driver's license after doing my military duty and have worked as a taxi driver ever since. The fertile land has been transformed into buildings – to house the country's many inhabitants."

Imam Ali's life choices are illustrative of the experiences of millions of Egyptians, who have watched the green of agricultural land be replaced bit-by-bit by the red of newly built brick houses. On the outskirts of Cairo this contrast is particularly spectacular.

In 2002 the Egyptian geologist and astronomer Faruk Al-Baz, professor at the University of Boston, made headlines when he predicted that the fertile land in the Delta and Nile Valley could disappear completely within 60 years if development were to continue unchecked. It's long been clear not only to the Egyptian government, but also to a large portion of the people living there that something must be done quickly to stop this catastrophic trend – but what?

The Nile as panacea?

In the past, whenever the people of Egypt have sought a solution to their biggest problems, they have tended to look to the Nile as cure-all. The construction of the Aswan Dam did in fact make it possible to win new land and to supply Egypt with electricity, but population growth has since destroyed all efforts at putting a stop to the destruction of farmland.

Awareness of this fact prompted the birth of the large-scale Toshka project, initiated in 1997 by the Mubarak administration. 1,300 km southwest of Cairo, near Lake Nasser, a dream is to become reality, solving all of Egypt's problems in one fell swoop: the plan is to make the desert fertile and suitable for settlement. The ambitious project near Abu Simbel is a mega construction site of truly pharaonic proportions. The official press, which praises the project to the skies, even calls it "Ahramat Mubarak" – the pyramids of Mubarak. At the heart of the project is a pumping station – the largest of its kind in the world.

Dubbed the "Mubarak Pumping Station," it is located 70 km north of Abu Simbel and pumps water out of Lake Nasser toward Toshka. Protected by the most stringent security measures, the station can only be visited with special permission, and then only viewed from the outside. It consists of 24 gigantic pumps, 18 of which are in operation around the clock. 25 million cubic meters of water are pumped out of Lake Nasser every day and conducted into the 50-km-long main canal.

Mubarak's pyramids a disaster waiting to happen?

Despite high temperatures in the desert, which in summer can reach up to 50 degrees Celsius in the shade, the precious water is conducted to Toshka in an open canal, unprotected from evaporation. Branching off from the main canal are four secondary canals capable of irrigating up to 80,000 hectares of land. Plans are to build 18 towns and cities during the next ten years – in the middle of the desert. A total of up to five million people should be resettled there.

It is in fact an impressive picture when one comes upon brightly lit paved streets in the midst of no man's land. But Toshka is still by no means a green paradise for millions of Egyptians – as in the picture painted by official bulletins. It could even turn out to be a fiasco.

The project can no longer be reversed, however, according to Dr. Mohamed Hassan Abdel Aal, Vice Dean of the Agricultural Department at the University of Cairo and specialist in environmental issues: "It's no use complaining that the investments made in this project could have been put to better use in agricultural development or land development measures in the Delta and Nile Valley, or for improving irrigation methods," says Abdel Aal.

Germany, which has been collaborating with Egypt for a long time in the agricultural sector, is not involved in the Toshka project. Paul Weber, irrigation expert from the GTZ in Cairo, says that Germany did not participate on purpose. After all, there were serious doubts as to whether it would be possible to mobilize sufficient farm workers to labor under these extremely harsh climatic conditions.

As it stands, the official press, which initially glorified the undertaking as "the greatest achievement of the Mubarak era," is reporting less and less on this prestige project. And the "Toshka" cigarette brand that was launched to mark the project start has quietly been taken off the market.

Hassan Znined


Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida


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